“Why do you still go back there?”
“Don’t I pay you to tell me that?”
“No. You pay me to listen.”
The key slides into the lock with a soft clink, metal hands latching, the warm copper brushing against the cold of the body, hot from where it had been pressed in his hand. Jack sighs as he twists it and shuffles inside. He doesn’t lock the door behind him; he’ll be leaving soon.
Inside, the wide window panes hold back the heat of a Manhattan summer, the smell of old rainstorms and wet concrete and slick steel all wrapped up in humidity that mingles between pressed bodies. He can see it looming over the East River, underneath the 59th street bridge. How many times he had stood in the doorway, staring out the window at those cars darting across the asphalt, screeching to a stop and beginning again in the heavy traffic out of the city. How, in the very beginning, there was a hand in his and a soft body beside him to lean against.
“I don’t know why I go back.”
“I think you do.”
“I’m trying my best. I want to fix this.”
“I know, Jack. You always do. Sometimes it’s just not enough.”
He stares at the sun creeping down the horizon, spilling its waxy light on the hardwood floor—it touches everything, even the shadows that loom, bringing a warmth that the nighttime banishes. He breathes in the smell of settled carpet, fresh dishes, of washed bedding. And he knows that as the sun sets, it will begin to fade. So he gets to work.
“What do you do when you’re there?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Otherwise, it would become a wreck. Susan wouldn’t want that.”
“Susan isn’t here, Jack.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“I’m not so sure.”
Sweeping, rewashing clean dishes, dusting. Brushing away spiderwebs, collecting bedding, taking it down into the basement, and the quarters kept in his pockets jangle for this and this alone. The vacuum bumps harshly over the hardwood and slides rugged against the carpet, and the particles of dust come up to float in the air, ruffling and drifting back down in diaphanous folds, glinting like stars in the harsh afternoon light. Then, he runs the water in the sink until it’s hot enough to turn his hands pink, collecting it in a cherry red bucket before mixing it with soap. He scrubs the floor with the floral washcloth, gritty and torn under his hands. He wrinkles his nose at the smell of the chemicals and the way it stings his eyes, but he doesn't dare stop. He scrubs and scrubs and scrubs, dips his hands in the scalding water, cleans the cloth, pulls them out, rings it out with hot hands, and then begins again. The same stains sit proud and ugly on the floor, a few smears of paint from a child’s hand; wine spilled in a laughing fit over a joke lost to time; scuffs from shoes; a split jar of pickled food that never quite faded. He knows them all, can pin them to a story, and like all the other times, he scrubs at them with restrained panic. When the rag bears no headway, he scratches at them with pink and blistered fingers, breaking his nails to get them out. To his relief and torment, they stay where they are, a bit of the past lived and left behind, and he moves on, not bothering to wash the blood from his fingers.
“I know it's a little crazy.”
“Then why do you always go back? You’ve got your own place.”
His and Susan’s room is spotless, the bedding washed and dried. The furniture is dusted, and the pictures on the walls of a different life are straightened. The carpet is clean. He checks that her clothes are there and then checks and rechecks. In the closet hangs the yellow sundress she would wear with her sandals down on their trips to the Hamptons. The silk one she would wear on nights out when the babysitter was in town to watch their beautiful daughter, Beth. The black one he bought her for her mother’s funeral, that he took her out of and hung up for her as she slept, tired and dead-eyed as Beth cried for what had felt like hours. The purple dress she had for church, to sing in the choir, a beacon of beauty and youth against the rest of the participants. All these tokens of the woman he loved, sitting flat on a hanger, swaying softly from the distant humming of the struggling air conditioning unit.
He closes the closet door and thuds his forehead against the white paint, fighting off tears. Some days, it doesn’t hurt. But others Jack can't ignore the roiling grief that reaches up and holds him by his throat until he’s gasping and whimpering her name, which has become foreign in his mouth, clunky with disuse. He wraps his arms around his waist as if he could keep the pain from springing forward and tainting the room around him with the wretched shadows of his tears. The wood of the closet door is growing warm. He can almost imagine, if he clenches his eyes shut as hard as he can, that it’s Susan’s forehead underneath his with her blonde hair falling all around them, that she’s smiling and looking up at him with her blue eyes as her lashes tickle his skin. But when he opens them, he's alone.
He gasps at the pain that rips through him, crumpling to his knees. He curls up against the closet door, looking around their bedroom. He croaks Susan’s name, fumbling with lips wet from tears, and then he says it again and again and again until it’s broken down into a collection of syllables.
“I don’t know why. I told you, I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He’s sure, now. He’ll never be able to live like before. Not—not like this. Not with memories hanging, ripe and ready to be plucked and examined and dived into, tears salty nectar as they dribble from his chin. He can’t make it through the day, can't make it through another visit to this place.
“I think . . . I think I visit it because I think it matters to me. My old home. But it doesn’t; it never did. All that mattered was that it was where my family was. And now . . . it’s nothing more than a terrible building, and that apartment—and I keep thinking it matters. It doesn’t. Nothing matters anymore.”
He wants to burrow his head in his hands, but he can’t look away, can’t stop remembering; the bed frame he and Susan lugged all the way here, assembled on their own, and the way she looked when she laughed at him for jamming his thumb with the hammer. The time the vacuum nicked off a corner of the dresser and he got on his stomach and sanded it until it was soft to the touch with Susan bouncing Beth off to the side, whispering to her about how her daddy would always take care of her. Her jewelry holder on the nightstand, cluttered with pearls and gold and silver, some from her parents but most products of the hours he spent slaving away in the office to bring home. All of the moments he's desperate to preserve, despite how they cut and tear him down to the bone.
“That’s not true, though, is it? There’s something that matters to you, Jack. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”
The sun has almost set in his distraction, but it burst through now, brushing everything all at once with its honey light. The bridge split it in half. Undeterred, shards of pink light covered the earth in a glinting beauty, the likes of which he’s hardly seen. And it was so bright—shining and shining—and the sky was so pigmented it was nearly dark with the full vibrance of the color; everything that the light touched made it shine, bright as a bulb. And then, when he thought it couldn't get more captivating, it was like the sun stretched out its limbs like a tired cat, coming down to earth to stand amongst men on the warm, cracked concrete. It was everywhere, in the reflections of windows, in its stretching beams. And in the face of that beauty, he realized that the future didn’t feel like an oncoming burden but rather the first breath of autumn floating through the window with the grace of an old friend.
The front door unlocks, but Jack isn’t afraid. He listens to the soft steps padding towards the bedroom and glances up when the door opens.
“I thought I would find you here.”
He smiles at the sight of her. Blonde hair, beautiful and gleaming golden in the light. Her thick lashes flutter against the sun in her eyes, but she stays in the doorway. The soft curves of her face shape down like a teardrop, and her eyes are so bright they’re nearly iridescent, blue and green and hazel. She looks like a whisper of the past and the sharp, stinging declaration of the future. She comes into the room and kneels across from him.
“I know you’re hurting. But you have to keep going.”
“I know, angel.”
She moves next to him and lays her head on his shoulder, and her hair tickles his chin; he’s never felt anything more relieving. He burrows his nose into the locks and presses his lips against the skin in a fluttering, hesitant show of affection. She melts into him.
“It hurts me, too.”
“I know. I would do anything to make it stop.”
“That’s the problem. Sometimes, things happen, and there’s nothing you can do. This is one of those things.”
They stare at the sun inking down the metal wires of the bridge. It slides down like a water droplet, and the light slowly fades in power, going from a punch to a gentle brush. He wraps an arm around her shoulders and squeezes her tight.
“You’re right. There is something that matters to me.”
“Let’s go home, Dad. Let these ghosts rest.”
He stares into Beth’s eyes, the sad lilt of her smile. “She would be so proud of you. So grown up and so much like her.”
Beth presses closer, hugging him as if he would break any moment; despite it all, with her by his side, he feels more whole than he has in years. Together, they watch the sun finally disappear, the reflections of the East River fading without a sound, and when the darkness takes over the apartment, the two of them leave, hand in hand.